Philip King on the impressive BMW 730d.
Jeremy Clarkson’s no-star car. John Connolly’s hidden gems.
We all know driver distraction is a big cause of accidents and it’s a rare day when you fail to see someone balancing a phone against their ear. Lots get caught, about 100 a day in NSW alone, and penalties are steep.
Not steep enough, evidently. In September, Queensland doubled demerit points for a second offence and in NSW from this year you’ll lose four instead of three.
Acceptable ways to use a phone include voice control, but recent findings suggest the cure may be as bad as the disease. The AAA in the US, a motoring club umbrella group like our own AAA, has analysed the effects of hands-free technology and finds it distracts drivers even when their eyes are on the road.
Unsafe distraction levels persist for up to 27 seconds, the October report says. At city speeds, that can mean hundreds of metres during which a driver may be oblivious to stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles.
“The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers,” AAA chief Marshall Doney says.
Voice recognition systems were supposed to solve the problem of driver distraction. They aim to let you make or receive calls, send or listen to messages, as well as do mundane stuff such as adjust the audio or aircon.
Most are rubbish, though, and the study finds even the best divert attention for 15 seconds.
When — or if — they do improve, it’s unclear the problem will go away. Combining another task with driving is always going to have some downside.
The industry’s latest trick is gesture control. It has been a feature of concept cars for a few years, now it has arrived in BMW’s new flagship 7 Series.
BMW always puts its largest sedan in the technical vanguard, then trickles innovations down through its range. Other brands, such as Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes, have signalled their intentions to introduce simi- lar systems. Soon, gesture controls will be everywhere. The BMW system has a repertoire of six gestures that must be performed under the rear-view mirror. They include waves of the hand to accept or reject a phone call, circular finger motions to adjust volume, and — my favourite — a sort of horizontal V-sign that can be set to a variety of functions. These include, say, set the sat-nav to direct me home.
Unlike voice controls, which can drive you insane, the limited gestures are easy to learn and work most of the time. Do they solve the distraction problem?
Well, no. It’s not really clear why they’re here at all. When was the last time you thought, “If only my car had gesture controls. My life would be so much easier?” In any luxury car likely to offer the system, you can achieve the same thing in other ways. Lots of other ways.
BMW uses a large rotary knob near the gearstick as the main navigation tool through its iDrive control system. It was a pioneer with this type of system and its early attempts were notoriously dreadful. Now it leads the pack. The iDrive has been refined for the 7, with shadow sub-menus that show the next set of options, and animated graphics.
Best of all, it anticipates your needs. For example, if you adjust the seat it will bring up the screen to store the new setting, complete with a picture of what’s happening. Manoeuvre near an obstacle, and the virtual overhead view is displayed.
As well as gesture control, this 7 also introduces touch-sensitive operation. Quite why is again a mystery. Stabbing at a touchscreen is inherently more difficult, and distracting, than turning a knob.
So now you can prod, signal, talk, twist and press, or even use your finger to “write” on the top of the control knob — an earlier product of the gimmick wave. Then there are buttons on the steering wheel and more on the end of a wand that navigate through the small screen between the dials.
No wonder drivers get distracted. If you run out of people to text, there’s so much to play with.
That’s true even when you’re not in the car. The 7 has a key that looks like a mini smartphone and has remote-control functions, such as activating the aircon.
Catering to phone junkies and techno-nerds is one of the industry’s central obsessions. There are two others: lowering emissions and pushing up-market. Since Chinese luxury buyers began to influence the cars being made, restraint has gone out the window. German and British brands have been blinging-up their designs to the max. The brochure may say, “form follows function”, but that’s only true if the “function” means appealing to Chinese aesthetics. Chrome has made a comeback and most designs are replete with faux vents and strakes so there’s somewhere to put it.
This 7 gets with the program; the overall shape goes
nowhere new but there’s more brightwork than ever. Perhaps a little too much. Inside, to banish any lingering doubts perhaps, after pressing the start button the 7 Series flashes up a message: “Welcome, to luxury.” (Yes, with a redundant comma.)
More than any 7 before, the message itself is also redundant. This is BMW’s most convincing luxury interior to date. It pitches into the middle ground between the austerity of Audi and the gaudiness of Mercedes.
The cabin structure and layout are familiar, but all the buttons and controls are metallic and feel top quality. There are shiny highlights everywhere, in fact, but the materials are lovely, fit and finish top-notch. Design details, such as black-panel displays, raise the tone. As well as the control system upgrade, the head-up display has also improved. It’s now the best around.
You receive a sunroof whether you want one or not, active cruise control that can stop-and-go, and every safety and alert system you can think of — plus some you can’t. Buyers can specify M Sport styling at no extra cost.
Driver position and visibility are good, with reasonably thin A-pillars, and on the road the car doesn’t feel as big as its 5.1m length suggests. It points and goes with BMW assurity and some of the dynamic character of the brand’s smaller models, despite a thick intervening layer of handling software.
Overall composure is excellent although the car’s run-flat tyres, as ever, bring a bit more road detail to the event than is ideal. This aside, quietness and refinement levels are up with the best.
It has shed up to 130kg thanks to the use of carbon fibre in the passenger cell structure and tips the scales at a low 1.8 tonnes. That helps efficiency, with the 3.0litre diesel in the test car returning a remarkably low official figure of 4.9 litres per 100km.
It revs and goes in the best BMW diesel tradition, with generous willingness — there’s a high 5500rpm red-line — and can propel the car with petrol-like urgency to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds.
The 730d is the entry car and BMW must be confident because, at $217,500, it starts above all its rivals including Porsche and Maserati. There’s also a 240kW petrol 3.0-litre six from $224,200 and the range climaxes at $312,700 with the long wheelbase 330kW V8 750iL due next year. It includes night vision, clever laser lights and a new automated parking system still awaiting Canberra approval when this was written.
Selling any large sedan is tricky these days, as SUVs rule. They are simply more practical — the 7’s boot volume of 515 litres can be found on much smaller SUVs. If there is any demand, this 7 has the substance to compete. The question, as ever for BMW at this level, is whether the brand has enough clout to command a premium.